Federal Authorities Do Little To Punish San Onofre Over Closure
Congress created the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974 to oversee nuclear power plants and to protect people and the environment.
In the case of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s failure in 2012, the agency cited plant operator and majority owner Southern California Edison and its equipment manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, for design flaws that eventually led to the facility’s closure. No fines were imposed.
But nuclear experts say the NRC ignored a crucial omission by Edison in 2006.
By June of that year, Edison managers were on notice about a flaw in the design of new steam generators meant for San Onofre. Steam too hot to handle for the generators could cause tube wear as it traveled through the equipment.
The steam generators were installed anyway. And in 2012, the flaw discussed internally six years earlier led to a radioactive leak that ultimately forced the plant’s closure at a cost of $3.3 billion for customers. Besides Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside have an ownership interest in the plant.
But during a key meeting with the NRC in 2006, Edison never revealed it knew about the potential steam generator flaw.
Daniel Hirsch, a UC Santa Cruz nuclear policy lecturer, said NRC rules equate omissions with lying. “And frankly, in any ethical sense, there’s no real difference,” Hirsch said.
Edison acknowledges it didn’t bring up the problem at that meeting.
In its inspection of what happened at San Onofre, the NRC never mentioned Edison left out crucial information about the equipment design during that 2006 meeting even though the commission had plenty of evidence — letters, emails, meeting minutes and internal memos that showed Edison knew of the potential problems.
The NRC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“Allowing a licensee to hide material from you that is really significant undermines the entire ability to have any safety regulation in the nation as a whole,” Hirsch said. “It’s not just a failure of Edison, but for the NRC itself.”
When the NRC’s Office of Inspector General investigated how the agency handled its inquiry into San Onofre’s operations, it also failed to note that the commission never took Edison to task for the 2006 omission.
“The inspector general should have come down like a ton of bricks on the NRC for allowing presentations to be made that omitted really key matters,” Hirsch said.
John Geesman, an attorney for Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, was more blunt. He called the investigators for the Office of Inspector General “Keystone Cops.”
“These people should not be allowed to investigate their own agency,” Geesman said. “The OIG is a joke. Someone from the Justice Department should have been conducting the investigation.”
In 2013, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer asked the U.S. Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Edison. The California Democrat said there was “evidence of misrepresentation and safety lapses” by the utility.
The Justice Department declined to comment on whether an investigation was ever opened.
Boxer’s fellow Democrat from California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, never joined the call for a criminal probe.
Feinstein did write a letter to U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy at Edison’s request. The senator asked Kennedy to persuade Japanese government officials to urge Mitsubishi, which is based there, to compensate ratepayers for the troubled San Onofre equipment.
Manufacturer Mitsubishi has said it knew of design flaws before the equipment went in and wanted to fix them. The company said it did not, in part, because Edison believed the alterations might hamper the utility’s ability to avoid a license amendment process.
The process allows regulators to assess safety risks.
In 2014, the NRC’s Office of Inspector General questioned why the NRC permitted Edison to install the equipment without going through that deeper review.
Edison may not be off the hook yet for the San Onofre closure. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has opened a criminal investigation into how the settlement assigning customers 70 percent of the shutdown costs was reached.